Health reform waivers draw political fire

WASHINGTON —Kansas Republicans waged a sharply-worded political attack Wednesday on the Obama administration's efforts to relax some of the new health reform rules that affect businesses, unions and states.

Their rhetoric at a midmorning outdoor news conference left little doubt that Republicans intend to use health care reform as a punching bag in the 2012 elections, much as they did in 2010.

The House Republicans from Kansas and other states who attended the session objected to the policy of granting waivers to the health reform law. Waivers permit employee health insurance providers to temporarily deflect new and higher minimum spending limits on medical expenses to avoid hurting consumers.

Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo of Wichita said that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a former Democratic governor of Kansas, was practicing "Chicago-style politics" by granting waivers to politically-friendly unions and businesses.

His GOP colleague from the state, Rep. Lynn Jenkins, called the waivers "sweetheart carve-outs" for "well-heeled fat cats."

Sebelius' office has previously denied the allegations. "Absolutely not," said Steve Larsen, a Sebelius deputy involved in health reform, when the question came up last week.

The department also announced last week that it would end the waiver program in September.

Among the changes in health care reform that go into effect in 2014 is the elimination of lifetime or yearly dollar limits on benefits. In the meantime, the law requires insurers in limited benefit plans to phase out the caps on benefits. In 2011, most plans can impose an annual limit of no less than $750,000.

The waivers are designed as a bridge until 2014 because requiring limited benefit plans "to comply with the new rules could cause ... premiums to increase significantly, forcing employers to drop coverage and leaving some workers without even the minimal insurance coverage they have today," according to HHS.

A recent Government Accountability Office analysis of the waiver program backed that up. It found that waivers went to applicants with projected premium increases of 10 percent or more.

The study said that HHS has received more than 1,400 waiver applications and has approved 95 percent. Most went to businesses.

Republicans, however continue to raise questions about whether politics has played a role in who gets them, who does not and why.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas asked Sebelius in a letter this month, signed by nearly three dozen House Republicans, for more details.

At the news conference on the Capitol grounds, Huelskamp said they never got a response and pointed to an easel holding a large blank white board to make the point.

"Obamacare was pitched to the American people as making health care fair for all, yet waivers do exactly the opposite," Huelskamp said. "It makes it a choice between the haves and the have-nots. Some get to be exempt from the law, while the rest of America has to live under it."

Larsen, in a statement following the news conference, said, "The annual limit waiver process has been straightforward, objective and transparent."

HHS officials also said that while Sebelius did not reply directly to the GOP letter, the department informed Huelskamp's staff last week of where on its website it could find much of the information Republicans had requested.